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March 05, 2013

Nigeria Violence Halts Anti-Polio Program

by Heather Murdock

Nearly a month after nine health workers in Nigeria were slaughtered as they prepared to administer polio vaccinations, the polio eradication program remains at a standstill in Kano, a state health officials call the epicenter of the disease.  

Officials say other polio vaccination programs in Nigeria are operating and they are working to beef up security to assure hundreds of health workers it is safe again to give vaccinations.   

At a church in the Nigerian capital, residents of northern Nigeria tell horror stories about how they survived militant attacks in their hometowns, and how others did not. 

Pastor Sarana Chinda, from Kano state, says one of the many sad results of insecurity is that children in Kano are no longer getting vaccinated for polio, a deadly, contagious disease that has been wiped off most of the planet.

This year, the only new cases that have been reported so far are in Nigeria, Afghanistan and Pakistan, three countries in the throes of security crises involving Islamist militant groups known to preach against polio vaccinations, saying they are part of a Western plot to sterilize Muslims.

In February, nine women were shot outside a polio center in Nigeria as they prepared to go from house to house vaccinating children. Chinda says local polio workers no longer operate in public, if at all.

“They can’t go round because if they go, they will kill them,” Chinda says.

Health officials say the suspension of the Kano immunization program is a temporary measure while they increase security and convince vaccinators they will be safe.

Rotary International District Governor Felix Ayo Obadan expects vaccinators in Kano to be back on the job in the coming weeks.

“They are now addressing the problem of the insecurity and granting assurances to the health workers that they will be protected in their normal routine job,” Obadan says, adding that eradicating polio is not just about protecting Nigerians, it's about protecting the world. “It’s an infectious disease. If there is one polio case anywhere in the world, the rest of the world is in danger.”

Other health workers say its not just polio prevention that has been impacted by new security threats in Nigeria. Fourteen foreigners are missing after being kidnapped by Islamist militant groups last month.

Also, Doctors Without Borders says it has withdrawn some of its staff from the north, a move Nigeria mission leader Ivan Gayton says could reduce the quality of care for patients with potentially deadly diseases like malaria and cholera.

He says the only way aid workers can stay safe is to convince all parties their only purpose is to provide health care.

“We just want people to recognize, everyone, everywhere to recognize, health care workers are apart," Gayton says. "We are not involved in the religious debate or the political debate or what they might call the clash of civilizations between the West and the Islamic World. We’re not part of that. We’re neutral.”

Sometimes called the Nigerian Taliban, Nigeria’s most infamous Islamist militant group is known as Boko Haram, a name that means “Western education is a sin.” Human Rights Watch says the group has killed more than 1,500 people since it began violent operations in 2009.